Providence City Council Moves Bag Ban to Committee

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

 Members of Zero Waste Providence waved plastic bags as the bag-ban ordinance was introduced Feb. 15. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Members of Zero Waste Providence waved plastic bags as the bag-ban ordinance was introduced Feb. 15. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — The City Council moved swiftly to advance a proposed bag ban by voting unanimously to move the ordinance to a committee hearing. The proposed law had five sponsors and picked up support from six additional council members at its Feb 15 meeting.

The ordinance, filed by council member Jo-Ann Ryan, is backed by the environmental group Clean Water Action, the packaging advocacy group Upstream, the city’s Office of Sustainability, and the ad hoc citizens committee Zero Waste Providence. Mayor Jorge Elorza is reviewing the proposaal. No one spoke against the ordinance.

Unlike bags bans passed by other Rhode Island municipalities, the Providence proposal requires retailers to charge at least 10 cents for paper or reusable bags. The fee is intended to shift the aim of the ordnance from a ban on plastic retail checkout bags to an inducement for shoppers to start using reusable bags.

“This really isn’t a stick. This is really a grassroots education and outreach initiative,” Ryan said.

Ryan said discarded plastic bags are a blight on the city and threaten fish and birds that mistake the bags for food. Plastic bags also cost the city about $1 million a year by contaminating recycling bins. Providence has the lowest recycling rate in the state, because plastic bags and other non-recyclable items such as food are dumped in the recycling stream. Cities and towns are required to dispose of recycling in the Central Landfill in Johnston and pay a fee if the collection trucks are polluted by plastic bags and other waste.

“It’s an environmental issue as well as an economic issue for us,” Ryan said.

The bill is similar to one recently passed in Boston that allows retailers to keep the reusable-bag fee. The Boston bag ban takes effect in December. The Providence ban would take effect 12 months after approval to allow retailers to replace their plastic-bag inventory.

Zero Waste Providence orchestrated the initiative with City Hall and will lead the public education campaign. Several members waved plastic bags during the recent City Council meeting to show support for the ban. The group hopes the ban leads to other waste initiatives, such as cleaner outdoor events and expanded composting.

Noel Frias recalled removing plastic bags from trees when he managed the nonprofit CleanUp PVD. Some of the bags, he said, suffocated birds.

“You don’t want your community to look bad, so why don’t we do something like this,” Frias said of the bag ban.

“I think if we wait any longer (the pollution) will get worse,” said Sophie Wieting, a student at the Lincoln School.

The City Council Ordinance Committee will review the bag-ban proposal and send a recommendation to the full council. No date has been scheduled for the committee meeting.

Rhode Island municipalities with bag bans are Barrington, Block Island, Jamestown, Middletown and Newport. Bristol, Portsmouth and Warren are also considering bag bans.